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On Independence Day, Brazil's president plans to flaunt his military ties

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's independence day in Brazil, and the country's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, plans to use today's celebration to flaunt his close ties to the armed forces. This comes amid growing concerns that Bolsonaro will refuse to leave office if he loses next month's presidential election. For more, we're joined by John Otis, who covers Brazil for NPR. John, what's supposed to happen today?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, first, Bolsonaro plans to attend a military parade in Brasilia, which is the capital, and that's a rather normal annual event, but then he's going to do something really out of the ordinary. He's going to fly down to Rio de Janeiro, where he'll give a speech on the iconic Copacabana Beach, and that event is going to feature a naval flotilla, an air show with paratroopers jumping out of aircraft and also cannons that are going to fire off a 21-gun salute.

MARTINEZ: So it kind of sounds like a militarized campaign beach party.

OTIS: Yeah, I mean, it's - what it really is, is kind of a last-ditch campaign stunt. All the polls in Brazil are showing Bolsonaro trailing his left-wing rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is a former president. So Bolsonaro is trying to do something really dramatic to turn the tables and kind of reset his campaign. You might compare it to former U.S. President Donald Trump using Mount Rushmore as a 4th of July backdrop for his 2020 reelection campaign. Bolsonaro has also been busy promoting today's event in TV spots like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: Now, in it, he's urging Brazilians to fill up Copacabana Beach today to have this big, big show of force.

MARTINEZ: So why has the event caused so much controversy in Brazil?

OTIS: Well, mainly it's because Bolsonaro has been really coy about whether he would actually leave office if he loses in the October 2 election, and the signs are not very good. He's claimed that the polls are wrong, that Brazil's electronic voting system is riddled with fraud and that the military should oversee the vote count. Now, if Bolsonaro does lose and if Bolsonaro tries to cling to power, he would very likely lean on the military for support. Bolsonaro is, you may recall, a former army captain. His government is filled with ex-military officers. And he's several times declared that only God can take me from the presidency. So if Bolsonaro manages to draw massive crowds today out on Copacabana Beach, that could be interpreted by the military as swelling popular support for the president to stay in power even if he loses.

MARTINEZ: But would then Brazil's military actually support an extreme move by Bolsonaro?

OTIS: Well, I mean, that's the big question. He'd likely get support from some military officers, but it's more doubtful that the entire top brass would go along with a full-fledged coup. Authorities right now in Brazil are on heightened alert for any sort of attack on Brazil's democracy. They recently raided the homes of several Brazilian businessmen who, in text messages, appeared to be supporting a military coup. But all that said, you also have to remember that Brazil does have a long history of military coups, and it was ruled by a military dictatorship as recently as 1985.

MARTINEZ: John Otis covers Brazil for NPR. John, as always, thanks.

OTIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.